With the Vatican bank's involvement in the recent Banco Ambrosiano scandal still making headlines, this ""account of a billion dollar counterfeit stock deal between the Mafia and the Church"" a decade ago gets points for timing. But that's about all, despite its bombshell pretensions. Hammer's tale, in a nutshell, is this: in 1971--when the Vatican's treasury was reeling from bad investments made by Bishop Marcinkus, the American-born chief of the Vatican bank--the late Cardinal Tisserant (then dean of the college of cardinals) and an unnamed aide approached Leopold Ledl, an Austrian swindler, about supplying $950 million in counterfeit securities to pad the Church's balance sheet; Ledl turned to some US contacts, including alleged Mafia figures Vincent Rizzo and Matteo de Lorenzo; a $14.5 million ""sample"" package was delivered to the Vatican, then taken back by Ledl's crew of freelance swindlers while the Church tried to raise $6 million in real money to pay for it; some of the ""sample"" securities surfaced in Europe thereafter, and most just vanished. Almost everyone involved landed in jail, though for scums unrelated to the Vatican deal; and there's no evidence that the Church ended up with any of the ""sample"" phony paper, let alone the ballyhooed ""billion."" Though he provides a close-up of the international trade in stolen and counterfeit securities, Hammer's interweaving of various complex swindles and haphazard chronology make for confusing reading. And his Vatican hook doesn't really catch: evidence of the ""connection"" is slim at best--a con-man's reports of conversations with a now-deceased cardinal and an unnamed aide; a few shady priests with a taste for the good life; and double-hearsay about Bishop Marcinkus' involvement. Marcinkus, in particular, is tarred heavily with the guilt-by-association brush (he was a friend of Michele Sindona, etc.), and though in the aftermath of Bunco Ambrosiano his career may well deserve close scrutiny he is, on the facts, unfairly Hammered here. Flashy--and disappointing.